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“A crisis within a crisis”—maintaining momentum to transform Freetown during COVID-19

For Freetown, Sierra Leone Mayor and Amujae Leader, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, OBE, the arrival of COVID-19 into her city has created a “crisis within a crisis.” While building preparedness and strategies to fight the virus, she continues to push forward with efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change, building up defenses against flooding and preventing the regression of recent improvements in the city’s sanitation system that would compromise the public health response. These efforts are also tied to wide-ranging projects to transform the city, ranging from the simultaneous construction of over 900 meters of new drainage in ten communities to the design of informal settlement neighborhood upgrades that will improve the quality of life for some of the most vulnerable residents.

Mayor Yvonne explained the complex considerations when battling a pandemic in a city like Freetown:

“The specific dynamics of our city are shaping our response to COVID-19. We have a high degree of informality in terms of settlement, transport, and employment, and that absence of structure also means we have an absence of space. Therefore, our efforts against the virus are going to look very different from those seen internationally. We do what we can—it is not perfect, but it is better that we spend our resources where we can make a difference.”

Making a difference in Freetown means a response supported by three strategic elements: behavior change messaging, behavior change support, and isolation and containment support:

“Beyond getting the messaging correct, we have to also use the right messenger—the right channel—to give that message credibility and align what is said with what is done. In Sierra Leone, life expectancy is less than 55 years: death is all around us and COVID-19 is just another way to die, and so people’s automatic response is, ‘what’s the big deal? Coronavirus, so what?’ But, by drawing on the lessons learnt from Ebola, and using the voices of survivors, we’re able to say, ‘yes, death is around us. But not like this.’”

In addition to engaging Ebola survivors, Mayor Yvonne is also mobilizing people at ward level across the city, including tribal leaders, religious leaders, traders unions, youth groups, and commercial drivers to deliver important messages about the virus: “When these people speak, people listen. The message resonates more from these leaders than from government.”

The behavior change support element of the response is being underpinned by practical action. Two weeks of piloting social distancing in an indoor and outdoor street market showed that it would eat up significant resources with limited impact to reduce the number of transmissions due to space and enforcement challenges. While physical distance could potentially be maintained in some places, the crowded transport and informal settlements used by market-goers would render its consistent application unrealistic. Therefore, efforts are instead directed to improving the markets themselves, fast-tracking improvement measures such as mending walls and roofs, improving toilet facilities, and adding handwashing facilities—a critical improvement in a city where 47% of the population have no direct access to running water, meaning handwashing opportunities are few and far between: “We have to deal with our reality. Making markets more attractive and bringing people into them can actually help with physical distancing, which is far harder to implement on overcrowded streets.”

Mounting an effective response has meant mobilizing both local and international supporters—quickly. Through the ‘mask up Freetown’ campaign, the city is providing 120,000 free masks to citizens, supported by funding from the EU and in collaboration with local designer Madam Wokie and others. A community care center is being developed with support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the EU for people with the virus from our densely populated informal settlements who are asymptomatic or have mild symptoms. Additional work to improve healthcare centers is also being fast tracked, including facilities dedicated to women, and maternal health in particular: “When women are afraid to go to main hospitals, these clinics will provide support to them. More than just the buildings themselves, they will provide end-to-end support with the medicines and support for the healthcare professionals needed.”

Beyond the immediate work to combat the spread of COVID-19, Mayor Yvonne is continuing her work to combat climate change and continue the transformation of Freetown. Freetown is a C40 city—a group of 96 cities that have committed to take bold climate action, leading the way towards a healthier and more sustainable future. Part of that work is ensuring the city is prepared for potential flooding by enabling the annual maintenance of drainage to go ahead—a flood would only exacerbate the existing problems of COVID-19.

Another, longer term risk mitigation program sees the city preparing to plant one million trees within a year, 500,000 of which will be planted this rainy season starting on June 5, World Environment Day: “We’re planting the trees for ‘Freetown the Tree Town’ in memory of one the program’s key supporters who sadly passed away in late May 2020. Too many trees have been destroyed in the creation of informal settlements, and so they need to be replaced to help prevent further crises.”

COVID-19 has brought into sharp focus the priority issues when it comes to transforming Freetown. One year into the Transform Freetown plan, Mayor Yvonne is determined that initiatives keep going in parallel with the fight against COVID-19:

“As other countries begin to ease their lockdowns, we have to remind ourselves that we are at a different phase in the cycle—our case numbers are still rising. But we must also keep other transformational programs moving forward, particularly those that relate to our slum upgrades and relocation strategies. Progress is gradual and the issues arising are complex, but it is important that we get things right. This is particularly important where settlements are built on unstable ground—relocating these will play a role in mitigating risk from climate change that come from rising sea levels and increased flood risk.”

“And while we complete this work, it is important that we don’t at any time take our eyes off the most vulnerable in our city. Everyone in our community is part of a chain—preventing the most vulnerable from becoming unwell by providing them with something as basic as the opportunity to wash their hands, can have great impact on stopping the spread of illness.”

For Mayor Yvonne, the launch of the Amujae Initiative, the flagship program of the Ellen Johnson Sirleaf Presidential Center for Women and Development, couldn’t have happened at a better time: “On so many levels it has been so relevant and so helpful. The sisterhood from the other Amujae Leaders, the mentorship from Madam Sirleaf, and the opportunity to share experiences with the network have been amazing.”

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